Serving the Transgender Community: It's More Than Just Bathrooms! | ALA Virtual 2020

A live panel of transgender and nonbinary librarians and allies, held on June 24 at the American Library Association’s (ALA) virtual conference, offered an abundance of useful information and resources for libraries to better serve their transgender communities and ensure that transgender staff are comfortable in the workplace.

screen shot of ALA panelists
Panelists, clockwise from top l.: Robert Taylor, Deb Sica, Meg Metcalf, Tatiana Kozbur, Becky Hass, Heather Torres

A live panel of transgender and nonbinary librarians and allies, held on June 24 at the American Library Association’s (ALA) virtual conference, offered an abundance of useful information and resources for libraries to better serve their transgender communities and ensure that transgender staff are comfortable in the workplace. “Serving the Transgender Community: It’s More Than Just Bathrooms!”—sponsored by ALA’s Rainbow Round Table—brought a variety of voices from public and academic libraries, as well as the Library of Congress, who spoke to issues facing library workers everywhere.

 

DEFINING EXPERIENCES

Moderator Deb Sica, deputy county librarian at the Alameda County Library, CA, started off by asking panelists about their “defining experiences” as a trans person or ally in the library. Tatiana Kozbur (she/her/hers), an interlibrary loan librarian at Chicago Public Library (CPL), recalled being asked by a patron why so many transgender people “congealed” at the library. Her answer was that everyone has a place, and equal access at the library. Kozbur also noted that her first transgender support group was at CPL, and since she has been at the library she has contributed to trans- and nonbinary-affirming programming, including screenings and a live trans/queer Dungeons and Dragons show, “Dungeons, Dice, and Everything Nice.”

Becky Hass (she/her/hers), programming and outreach manager at the Anne Arundel County Public Library, MD, said that a transformative experience in her work as a trans ally was a Lunch and Learn discussion at the library last year on what it meant to be trans, coordinated by a regular library user, which brought together a wide group of panelists including library staff who had transitioned while working there. It was a powerful way of showing solidarity, she said, and offered a place for the community to learn and grow together.

For Robert Taylor (they/them/theirs), acquisitions and cataloging librarian at Valdosta State University, GA, coming out at the university was a defining moment. Because they have worked at the library since 2008 and known folks there a long time, “coming out on campus was not really a quiet thing.” Through that experience, they said, they found a good group of core allies and have become more active on campus.

Meg Metcalf (they/them/theirs), women's, gender, and LGBTQ+ studies Librarian at the Library of Congress (LC) who identifies as a nonbinary femme, recalled tabling for LC at an LGBTQ literary festival when someone approached them to say they had found a trans book in the reference collection at Metcalf’s home library, and after reading it, realized they were not binary. “That rocked my world,” said Metcalf. “I put that book there.”

 

WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO AVOID

Sica next asked: What is the single most important thing that libraries can do to be welcoming spaces for trans patrons and staff, and what is the most important thing not to do that could keep trans patrons or staff from feeling welcome in the library?

Be careful about pronoun use, said Kozbur. Try to learn a patron’s first name, or point out someone in a crowd using a feature other than gender—“the person in the red shirt”—and use pronouns on nametags. For staff, start out by making sure that trans-related health care is very visible in the onboarding paperwork. CPL had an entire paragraph devoted to that, she said, which made her feel comfortable right away. As far as what not to do, she advised staff not to talk or gossip about trans patrons. “They come to you for help,” she noted; “keep it in confidence.”

Practice explicit inclusion, advised Hass—“Not claiming to be a welcoming space, but being intentional about meeting the unique needs of patrons and staff.” Building connections with outside groups is key to making things happen at the library, she said, such as Anne Arundel’s Pride parade. Those groups come to library program planning meetings and host library staff at their own events. The most destructive thing libraries can do, she noted, is to silence trans stories. “Story is [libraries’] currency,” she said. Stories of surviving and thriving trans lives are a gift of life to the library’s community, and conversely, “silence becomes a literal death threat.”

Connection with local groups is important for academic libraries as well, said Taylor, as well as campus groups such as the Gay Straight Alliance and the faculty/student pride group. It helps to see someone who’s like you, they noted, and to know that there are other trans people in the libraries. But don’t stress over mistakes, Taylor added—everyone’s going to make them. If you misgender someone and obsess over it, “it puts us in an awkward position to hear a 20-minute apology and we end up going, ‘no no no no no no.’”

Check library policies, suggested Metcalf, for any embedded transphobia. For instance, there’s no need to ask a patron why the name they want on their library card is different from other identification. And remember: gender-neutral language is not really that hard to learn. “We are researchers, we’re librarians—we know how to learn new skills,” they said, adding that staff shouldn’t simply lean on LGBTQ coworkers for help, although it’s all right to ask questions.

“Be aware of language on surveys,” added Taylor. “Pay attention.” Incidentally, the biggest survey under scrutiny right now is the U.S. 2020 Census, noted Sica. There are no options for nonbinary answers to the gender question on the census, and she advises people not to answer if the choices don’t apply to them: “don’t check the box if it’s not your box.”

Speaking of checking boxes, said Kozbur, make sure information forms for both patrons and staff are streamlined, so that people can change their names and pronouns if they want.

 

STRUCTURAL CHANGE

Although the title of the panel is a nod to progress—“we hope the bathroom is a given at this point,” said Sica—there are structural changes that libraries still need to make to welcome trans patrons and staff. She asked the panel for specific suggestions.

Kozbur noted that inviting outside organizations into the library for advice should also extend to materials as well as programming. CPL has a collection of gay legal resources and self-help documents, as well as a list of name and gender change resources for each state, published by the Transgender Law Center. Make those resources more available and more accurate, she said.

Education is critical for both patrons and the organization itself, said Hass. It’s not the trans community’s responsibility to make cisgender people comfortable, she noted; we have to educate ourselves, and be willing to fully engage in these conversations. Last year Anne Arundel started a reading challenge and staff asked for more education on how to reach out to the LGBTQIA community. The library brought in Jamie Naidoo, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies who works with libraries on serving the literacy needs of LGBTQ children, teens, and families—a partnership that “really blossomed.”

The work shouldn’t stop there, she added—build internal relationships with the library board and foundation as well, to make sure that work with partners aligns with its mission and funding. Get policy embedded in strategic plans, missions, and funding, said Sica—something to refer back to “when the waters get a little rocky.”

Taylor echoed the call for allies to educate themselves. There are various ways to go about it: a podcast from a queer or trans person will let you hear their perspectives without putting the mental or emotional load on someone local. Even something as small as “slyly sticking a book by a trans person in your book display—trust me, we notice.” And look at your cataloging practices, such as faceting and LC demographic group characteristics for creators.

Many libraries don’t have mission statements or collection policies in place for LGBTQ materials, said Metcalf, and those need to exist to help guide what libraries collect, and how. They noted that a lot of trans materials are self-published or come from nontraditional presses, and don’t come in through traditional acquisition methods. Also, consider hiring trans people in non-librarian as well as librarian roles, to do story times or help with programming. And as far as programs are concerned, Metcalf added, we don’t have to only put them up in June! They’re important all year long.

 

WHERE TO START

Who’s an influencer, writer, or thought leader talking about trans rights that you would recommend as a starting point? asked Sica. Taylor recommended Callie Wright, who produces the podcasts Queersplaining and Gender Reveal, and Marissa Alexa McCool, who has a few podcasts and books out, as well as the comic A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns. Kozbur gave shout outs to two of her favorite webcomic and zine creators, Sophie Labelle and Jessica Udischas; the Netflix documentary Disclosure; TV and film’s Wachowski sisters; and musician Laura Jane Grace. Metcalf, a self-professed theory history nerd, recommended Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues. Hass’s workforce quality diversity committee read the graphic memoir Gender Queer together and had a great conversation around it, she said.

 

THE WISH LIST

What if you had a magic wand, asked Sica, and could change one thing in library services to trans patrons?

No more playing both sides, said Kozbur. Libraries want to give equal presentation to ideas and include everyone, but she doesn’t believe they should offer a place to those who deny trans people’s existence. And while anti-trans books should be available as part of the collection, libraries should balance that with more trans voices and more opportunities for inclusion for library staff.

Metcalf wished for equal budget allocations for trans materials and programs as well as equal rights. Hass’s magic wand would enable “libraries to become authentic advocates for kind, resilient, transformative spaces for both trans staff and our patrons.”

And Taylor, the panel’s title notwithstanding, wished for more gender-inclusive restrooms. Back in the days of physical conferences, they noted, there was often no bathroom they could use.

Audience questions included queries about how to help trans high schoolers feel more welcome (displays, movie nights, feature trans people in various roles beyond Pride month) and how to support trans youth experiencing homelessness (make sure resources and pamphlets about health care and housing are available for them to take, since they may be too scared to approach a librarian).

Finally, Sica said of the well-attended event, “I hope our 500 viewers can take one tiny step, or one giant leap, to change something in their library.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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